By Marian Li, Toppel Peer Advisor

There are first interviews, second interviews, phone interviews, lunch interviews, and group interviews; you’d think employers covered all their bases since all of the above have purposes and best practices. And then there’s the forgotten interview of the job searching process: the informational one. Informational interviews are underutilized. People, especially college students, are unaware of the opportunities that are presented before them. The title of “student” shields one from the judging, probing stares of an employer when they search for an ulterior motive. As a student, employers gladly take one under their wing and treat the interview as a learning opportunity.

So first off, what is an information interview? An informational interview is a one-on-one conversation with someone who has a job you might like, who works within an industry you might want to enter, or who is employed by a specific company that you’re interested in learning about. These interviews are excellent options for plotting a career path or focusing your aspirations. Because they’re preliminary in nature, informational interviews are also useful for someone who knows what type of job they want but is still at the beginning of his or her search. It’s also a good way to practice your interview skills without conducting a formal job interview. And it’s always good way to network into an organization.

   

Sounds helpful, right? Then how do you conduct an informational interview? For some people, the hurdle of an informational interview isn’t understanding its purpose, but going about arranging one. After all, if you’re at this early stage, you probably have limited means of approaching industry-specific contacts. Those in the know say the first and easiest solution to this problem is to speak with people within your inner circle. Friends, family members, and LinkedIn connections might know of appropriate sources. See if you can contact a suggested person through email, telephone, mail or otherwise to try to arrange a meeting. Veer away from contacting human resources employees, since their standard answer will be to send a resume, and keep in mind that a company executive might have limited time for face-to-face meetings. You’re best option would be to find someone within the role you’re hoping to fill, or one-step above that, who is close to a hiring manager.

Now what to do? It would be a shame to ace all the initial steps only to botch everything on interview day. To start on the right foot, Crawford recommends dressing the way you would for a formal job interview. This might mean a dark suit and tie for a corporate office, or some slacks and a button-down shirt for a more-casual workplace. She also advises you bring copies of your resume, a generic cover letter, any work portfolio you have, and some spare business cards. Be prepared to ask questions about a typical work day, the corporate culture, the management style, and industry trends. And cue up responses on your personal career plans, your experience, and your skills. Above all, keep in mind that your goal is to come away with more information—not a job offer.

What do you do after the interview? Take a breath and give yourself a pat on the back if you’ve made it all the way through successfully setting up and conducting an informational interview. But also know that how you follow up is just as important as how you behaved in the interview itself. And you should always follow up—even if you’re disinterested in pursuing the lead any further. If an interviewer doesn’t hear back from someone they gave an informational interview, they would feel used. If you’re not interested in the company or the field, you should still send a quick thank you. An email will suffice, but if you are interested, then your tone and the frequency of your follow up will change.